“Put the cow horns back on the Cadillac”: John Hiatt – Bring the Family (1987)


John Hiatt is someone I got into a bit at the start of the millennium.  Truth be told, I drifted away from his stuff; very rarely listening to much at all these days.  The exception is Bring The Family.  I like this one an awfy lot.  So much, in fact, that I have two copies.  Why?  Well, they have different covers.  I picked up the A&M release a fair few years back when browsing the racks in Oxfam.  The Demon release came a couple of years later when I spotted it cheap.  A near-mint-copy-for-£3 cheap.  Despite having the album already, I liked the cover on the Demon release a whole lot.  Plus, it has a sheet complete with lyrics.  That’s the kinda thing I’m after.  The kinda thing we’re all after, amaright?

Anyhoo, what do I like about it?  Well, Bring The Family is one of those brilliant spontaneous albums that come along every now and then.  Recorded in just four days with the help of Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. I’ve read that there were no rehearsal shenanigans and it relied pretty much on the chemistry and understanding of the folks involved (Nick Lowe apparently never heard Memphis in the Meantime when he recorded it).

You can hear the room and the warmth of the instruments and those wielding them. In fact, the spontaneity of it all means that no-one ever overplays or overpowers the actual songs.  I mean, the fact that the songs more than match each of the players here says an awfy lot.  I honestly can’t overstate how great a collection of songs this is – I don’t think there’s a poor one among them.

The simplicity of the whole things allows Hiatt to be as frank as he wants to be. Here he is with a bunch of friends revealing more about himself than he maybe had before.  You’ll find self-reflection, faith, and love on the menu; all the good stuff that allows artists to not only express themselves but exorcise demons (or angels).

Memphis in the Meantime has a great shuffle and really starts the album off brilliantly.  I can’t articulate just how much I love this one.  It makes me smile and makes me dream of hitting the road and selling mangos.  There’s a real groove here and one of my favourite lyrics on the album.  Hiatt’s done with Nashville and country music, folks (like a whole bunch of other great musicians).

I like country music and I like mandolins, but right now I need a telecaster through a Vibro-lux turned up to ten

Memphis in the Meantime

That groove continues through Alone In The Dark and Thing Called Love.  Cooder’s guitar buzzes and stings on Alone In The Dark while Hiatt sings lines like “I rub my nose in it, babe, til the roses smell just like death”, while Thing Called Love is a song about the strength of love and having faith when things are tough.  And, as you can imagine, that’s something of a recurring theme here; especially on the brilliant Have a Little Faith in Me.

See, the thing about Have a Little Faith in Me is that it immediately sounds familiar.  Quite possibly because it immediately resonates.  We’ve all been there, right?  Asking that our better halves be patient or have a little faith that we can do something better – be it making better decisions when drinking (like don’t drink so much, or get a taxi home instead of walking 300 miles when you missed the last train) or suchlike.  It’s a highlight, though.  Cause here is that cry for faith at it’s purest and most desperate.  Hiatt solo on the piano and, well, the sheer emotion and vulnerability always gets me.  Despite the troubles and mistakes or whatever, he gives love unconditionally and is seeking just a bit of understanding.  C’mon, lady!  Cut the guy some slack!

Wait, Jim!  You haven’t mentioned anything about Lipstick Sunset!  I know – that song annihilates my soul.  Cooder’s slightly overdriven slide guitar is gorgeous and Hiatt sounds utterly broken.  Perfect.  That’s all I’ll say.

Thank You Girl kicks the second side off in similar style to Memphis In The Meantime.  It rocks and rolls and locks into a loose groove.  It’s a clear thank you to the woman who has helped pull Hiatt from the darkness (she cut him some slack, after all!)  Again, Hiatt’s words are brilliant and the way he delivers them… so good.  Ry Cooder also plays a blinder here, by the way; that buzzing guitar cutting through and the underplayed solo is a nice refrain.  The track makes Tip of My Tongue a bit easier to take, cause man, that’s a downer.

Like Lipstick Sunset, Tip of My Tongue is one of the saddest songs I know.  Again, it’s one a lot of folks could certainly relate to (though maybe not to the same extreme).  We say things that we don’t always mean.  Or they come out wrong cause we’re not the best in certain situations.  We’re left with regret regardess and, well, just sometimes there’s no taking those words back… and naturally the regret lingers.  Just as it does here.

I’d take it back, but time won’t let me.

No, time just takes you further away

Tip of My Tongue
Cup face

Moving swiftly on, the guitar intro to Your Dad Did lets us know we’re in for a good(ish) time and the song itself highlights just how great a lyricist Hiatt is.  You’ll hear why.  A warning to the heir of the complacent king.  Something to consider when you drift through each day, anyway.  But, it’s right toe-tapping cheery.  Stood Up is more of that wonderful ‘love saves’ sentiment.  Hiatt sounds a bit like Van Morrison and there’s certainly a similar blue-eyed soul vibe around the song as Hiatt recounts losing the shackles that bound him (“Now they gave last call for alcohol and no one has to carry me home. You see, I only work here now man, my drinking days are long gone”).  Great stuff.

Learning How To Love You is as perfect a side closer as Have a Little Faith in Me.  There’s perhaps a little less raw emotion, but the message is much the same.  Love isn’t an easy ride – it takes some work and we’re always learning.

The whole thing is emotional, witty and, most of the time, powerfully moving.  As I’ve maybe already suggested, I guess it’s one we all can relate to.  Whether or not we lived the life of Mr Hiatt here isn’t the point… the point is that we’ve been in a position where we’ve reflected on where we’ve been, where we’re headed and what we learned along the way. We can relate to lasting love and the hard work involved.

The lack of label involvement during the recording is likely the reason the production sounds so timeless (Hiatt was without a label).  There’s no sheen on any of this and I honestly think the album is better for it.  It’s warm and inviting, even when there’s a powerful intensity.

Anyhoo, sorry for going on a bit.  Bottom line is, this is a great album.  Sure the subject matter is weighty, but aside from Tip of My Tongue it never really feels heavy.  Perhaps cause it’s littered with humour and wit.  Even at the lowest points there’s something that can make you smile or, dare I say chuckle.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. keepsmealive says:

    Man I am right there with you, having two copies of something just for different covers. And the John Hiatt appreciation. Nice one(s)!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Did you see STP is releasing the 25th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of Tiny Music in July? Remastered album, cd of demos and a live show from 1997, plus a vinyl of the album. Mine is on order.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      I have! I think I’ll opt for the CD for the demos as I have the live stuff already (a great set and they were on form – recorded for MTV I believe).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep. That is the show. I don’t have it so I am thrilled to get that one. My brother in law, this was the first album he worked on with STP back in the day. He’s done most of them since. And was talking to me the other day about mixing all the demos and he had a lot of fun going through them.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I hear you loud and clear on this one and I cant add anything to your take. Hiatt is one of those guys that I sometimes take for granted. He’s been on my music box for a long time and continues to put out quality music. Another one of those prolific musicians who seems to have endless great musical ideas inside him. I think I’ll spend some quality time with old John. I’m way over due on a Hiatt take. He’s the real deal J.
    (I just listened to Little Village a while ago. I dig all the musicians involved)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      I’m guilty of not spending enough time with Hiatt stuff outside of this one. I don’t know why. Like you, maybe I take him for granted? He’s brilliant. Genuinely one of the best.

      (I need to get Little Village. I had the CD, but I don’t know what happened to it and it’s been years since I last heard it).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I came on with Slug Line. They hung a Costello tag on him over here. I didnt get it. ‘Riding With the King’ solidified my interest then this album and ‘Slow Turning’ , there was no turning back.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J. says:

        The Costello tag just isn’t accurate at all – from a songwriter perspective, Hiatt always seemed a bit more personal.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I never got that one. “Personal” is a good pick up. I agree. Thats people hanging tags on things. I try to be careful on those comparisons. When I first heard Dire Straits I couldn’t help thinking J J Cale. But at he same time they both had their own thing. When I first read that Costello thing I was already well into Hiatt.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. J. says:

        It’s easy to tag things, eh? I tend to say “kinda like….” when making suggestions or the likes, though I tend to think I’m a bit more accurate!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Plus certain music does sound similar. When I first heard Springsteen I could hear Van Morrison all over him. When folks (journalists) throw shit like that out there then people start aping it without doing the listening.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. badfinger20 (Max) says:

    I like Memphis in the Meantime…I’ve always liked Hiatt… He is real and so is his music. As you have said it is relatable. It’s the kind of music he could play you on a back porch somewhere and it would be great.
    Before I read this I just listened to “Window on the World”


  5. BuriedOnMars says:

    I saw John Hiatt open for BB King. It was good times. I don’t have this one but two from the ’90s that I likes a-lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      That’s a good gig to be at! If you spot this one on your travels is highly recommend it.

      Liked by 1 person

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